I am going to have this recurring nightmare for the next few years ... I'm trapped in a reality TV show after the model of "The Apprentice", in which the marketing folks at a publisher responsible a bunch of aspiring authors are gifted with the marketing and promotion budget of a best-seller to spend on their pool of newbies, in a gruesome elimination match to see who can survive the signing tour. Sort of like "The Hunger Games" for authors.
Here's how it works ...
A book signing tour sounds romantic, but actually it's not. It's like one of those cheap package holidays in which you get to tour South America or Europe in seven days. Each day you have to get out of bed at dawn or earlier and head to the airport for another cavity search and economy-class ticket to a new city. When you arrive, a new guide meets you in, shovels you into their car, and then takes you on a whistle-stop tour of sights of the city. (On a tourist tour, it's museums or monuments; on a signing tour, it's bookstores, where you render the stock non-returnable by defacing it with your signature.) You might be allowed to dump your bag in a hotel room if timing permits. The hotel room will be luxurious and expensive and you will spend so little time awake in it that it seems like a cruel joke, because your time will be programmed so tightly you barely have a chance to eat. It is possible that you will be dragged in front of microphones or cameras to answer confused or confusing questions by journalists who haven't read your book; then, each evening, you will show up at a bookstore where hopefully there will be an audience who will listen to you deliver a canned speech and/or reading and then buy books which you will then sign. And you will have to be nice to everybody, on pain of potentially not getting another tour (which might sound like a blessing in disguise until you work out what's going to happen to your income thereafter). Finally, your head hits the pillow around 11pm — don't forget to check in for tomorrow's exciting anal probe and air-sickness theme-park ride! — for as much as five or six hours' sleep.
How can we make a reality TV show out of this?
Here's my idea: first, we need a Publisher. Preferably a charismatic, intense, skinny English guy with a posh accent. (Hello, Tim!) We also need a Production Company, a TV content maker, with a budget. As TV programming costs on the order of a megabuck per hour, and signing tours cost maybe a kilobuck per author per day (including travel, hotels, guides, and so on), they can afford to front the cost of about a dozen signing tours for first-time authors. No publisher in their right mind will turn down that sort of free marketing money (in exchange for allowing a camera crew to shadow the authors), and the hapless midlist grunts are of course not going to turn down a marketing budget a bazillion times bigger than their book advances (plus, the chance to look good on TV).
The format of the show ... well, normally authors tour solo, but there's no reason not to run multi-author events, is there? So our 12 authors are divided into six teams of two, on tour together for a week, cheek by jowl, cramped coach class seat by coach class seat. Ideally we'll team each expansive extrovert with a brittle introvert—not the kind who can't stand up to a tour in the first place, but the sort of introvert who can manage three days in public, emulating an extrovert, until the wheels fall off and they have to hide in a wardrobe and gibber for a day.
The teams battle it out among themselves, under the watchful eyes of our intense, uber-critical Publisher; meanwhile, the members of each team compete in audience-phone-in run-offs against each other. We need fear, and we need loathing; we need sleep deprivation, and we need the sweet, smoky smell of fiery desperation fueled by the fear of obscurity.
We can have interviews with the sadistic marketing manager, who is plotting new and better ways to leverage the degradation of our publicity-seeking authors into a boost for their audience mind-share. We can have interviews with the squeeing fan-girl marketing manager, who really, really wants them to succeed (but is about 23 years old and has never had the money to travel outside New York, and is therefore playing tourist by proxy with 50-year-old hypertensives who she unconsciously assumes share her stamina and enthusiasm). We can seed the readings (none of whom have yet read any of their books) with plants, primed to ask embarrassing or revealing questions. Better yet, we can send them to underpublicized events so that they suffer the humiliation of outnumbering their audience (who thought they were there to demonstrate a cookery course or something instead). Finally, if all else fails, we can put them inside a televisual panopticon and force them to play iterated Prisoner's Dilemma games, stabbing each other in the back while smiling sweetly, until they snap and fall on each others' throats in a frenzied orgy of psychotic biting and clawing.
As authors drop out, the marketing budget remains the same. So by the time we're down to two desperate competitors, it is almost inevitable that the marketing leverage being applied to their work is going to drive sales that spike briefly into the lower reaches of the New York Times extended bestseller list—thus bestowing on the winner the right to print "New York Times Bestselling Author" on all their future novels, in perpetuity! And thereby quadrupling their advances (or something like that).
I'd pay to watch a show like that. But I'd have to drink myself into a stupor before I could sleep after each episode, to avoid the flashbacks.
This blog entry brought to you by about a pint of Mountain Dew and a week of cumulative sleep deprivation. [ Discuss it here ]